We’re living in uncertain times when trusted institutions are being tested to their limits, and science, the press and academia are being bluntly refuted when they can’t be actually disproven. We’re living in a culture where conspiracy theories may be given equal, if not greater, weight than the substantiated facts of a news report or the mathematically measured and statistically sound findings of a scientific study. This past weekend a new ruler of the jungle slouched into cinemas across the country, and while he shares some of the anthropomorphized characteristics of his past movie iterations, this Kong is a king of chaos, and his time has come.
Kong: Skull Island isn’t a great film, but it has great timing, and the movie manages to smash the MonsterVerse franchise forward one more massive, soldier-crushing step: the series started with Godzilla (2014), and Kong: Skull Island will be followed by Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) and Godzilla vs. Kong (2020). This movie also reimagines this more massive monkey as a force of nature instead of the lumbering leading man we’ve seen in Kong’s original 1933 iteration or even in the ice skating charmer of Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005). This Kong is a big beast who does have one moment where he appears sad, and he seems to have a special connection with a spunky photojournalist named Mason Weaver (Brie Larson). But here we don’t root for Kong because he seems like a person, we root for him specifically because he’s not a man in this misanthropic adventure – Kong is pure nature, untouched by the conniving depravity of warmongering humans, and unmeasured by the know-nothing science that the creature’s very existence recasts into an absurd joke.
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and screenwriters Dan Gilroy and Max Borenstein cast their Kong as a mythic god who stands apart from the modern age: Skull Island is surrounded by constant, violent storms that have left it undetected, and Kong and the other monsters that call the island home are championed only by radical researchers like cryptozoologist William Randa (John Goodman) who works for the secret Monarch organization introduced in the MonsterVerse’s original Godzilla film. Randa weaves a vision of a hollow earth filled with massive monsters that have always ruled the world, and allusions to Greek myths – like the story of Icarus’ wings – are mixed with iconic homages to movie masterpieces like Apocalypse Now. It’s all set against a soundtrack of 1960s staples that’s designed to reimagine the monster movie as mass ritual, the invocation of some wild filmic vision of a skyscraping simian that paradoxically speaks to something deeply human.
What we actually get is a string of relentlessly predictable set pieces featuring one life threatening encounter after another in the almost videogame-like setting of Skull Island: During the closing days of the Vietnam War, Randa and his assistant hitch a ride with a scientific expedition to the island. They’re able to secure a chopper escort in case their giant monsters theories are true. Preston Packard (Samuel Jackson) leads the Sky Devils helicopter squadron, and James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) is a British Special Air Service Captain brought along as a guide. Aside from Larson’s idealistic photo-snapper, every person in this film represents the militaristic technocracy of the West and its capitalistic blood lust. There are attempts to create real characters here and Jackson and Goodman are both solid, but most of the characters in this movie are just paper thin targets for Skull Island’s giant bugs, stupid skull-faced lizards and gargantuan gorillas to men- ace. Peter Jackson’s Kong remake in 2005 featured a bloated second act set on Skull Island that was justly criticized for its endless-seeming massive monster attacks. In some ways, Skull Island feels like that second act was lifted into 2017 and stretched – very thinly – into a two-hour feature.
That said, I like this film’s take on Kong very much as well as its subtext about America’s gnawing need to find new enemies to justify its endless wars. This movie’s celebration of nature as something mysterious, transcendent and enduring offers important reminders to Americans at a time when the Environmental Protection Agency is under attack, and deregulation threatens everything from our public lands to clean air and drinking water. Most importantly this new trip to Skull Island reminds us that the meanest monster of them all is ourselves.
Kong: Skull Island is playing locally in wide release.
Joe Nolan is a critic, columnist and perform- ing singer/songwriter based in East Nashville. Find out more about his projects at www. joenolan.com.